With the intellectual capacity of a two-year-old child, dogs are like furry, oversized toddlers. It can be easy to forget this, but it does explain why they kick up a fuss in unfamiliar environments. For some dogs, travel stress is very real, especially if they’re not frequent flyers (or vehicle passengers). There are ways you can prepare them for long journeys—and the longer the journey, the more important this may be.
Treat training is a surefire way to encourage behaviours in dogs. Image: Stylish Hound
Is your little angel new to commuting, or do they shudder at the thought of long-distance travel? Read on to learn our top tips for soothing your little bundle of nerves—and strap in for a more pleasant journey all-round!
If you’re travelling by car, you won’t necessarily need to use a crate. If you’re travelling by plane, however, a crate will be mandatory. So that it won’t be a shock to the system, it’s a good idea to grow your doggo used to being in a crate. If you crate-trained them as a puppy, this shouldn’t be too much of a big deal.
Introducing the crate
When first introducing your dog to the crate, you need to present it in a positive light. Deter them from thinking of it as a prison. Make them think of it as a comfy spot, not unlike a kennel. Place it in a spot where the family congregates and pop some warm woollies or toys inside it.
Next, when feeding your dog at mealtimes, place their food inside the crate. Think of it as Uber Eats, only instead of leaving the food at the door, break and enter and place it at their dining table. It’s nonsensical, but you follow, right? Their crate is their home. That’s how they need to think of it. They’ll be much more likely to do so if it has all their favourite things inside it—and home delivery.
Do the same thing with treats. Give your dog something that will occupy them for a while, like a bone, and close the crate door once you know they’re occupied. After a while, you can also close the door as they’re eating their meals. If the closed door does not disturb them, this is a sign they are becoming more comfortable with the crate. The training is working!
The deeper you go into crate training, the more time they should be spending inside the crate. Unless your pup is in an actual plane, ensure they are not in the crate for longer than three hours at a time.
When the crate does not take
If you’ve tried all of the above and your dog still won’t enter the crate without prompt or remain inside the crate for longer than a few seconds/minutes, you can always fall back on ye old faithful treat training. To implement this classic (yet operant!) positive reinforcement strategy, throw doggy treats inside the crate. Dogs are food-motivated creatures, so they will likely run after the treat, regardless of any unpleasant feelings the crate may inspire.
Image: Stylish Hound
Once your dog has the treat, close the crate’s door for a moment, and then open it again. Repeat this process five times per session. Over time, you should increase the amount of time your dog spends inside the crate. If your dog is comfortable with a moment inside the crate, for example, then try closing the door for 10–20 seconds next time. So long as your dog is not protesting in any way, you should continue to increase this duration.
The goal of this exercise is for the positive feelings associated with the treats to ultimately trump the negative feelings created by the crate. Work up their tolerance in small steps and don’t force the process. Forcing an anxious dog to remain in their crate for 10 minutes with no prior preparation, for example, will only amplify any feelings of anxiety. So just take it moment-to-moment and you’ll hopefully have a more chilled pup on your hands.
If you’re travelling by car
Crates still have value if you’re travelling by car. If you won’t be using a doggy seatbelt or doggy car seat, a crate is certainly an option for long-term canine car travel. Even if you don’t intend to confine your dog in this way, crate training can still be a useful tool.
Little dogs love comfy car seats! Image: Stylish Hound
Let’s say your dog is unused to driving by car and has an anxious response to your vehicle. If your dog has grown comfortable in their crate, you can place your dog in the car whilst inside their crate. If they dislike their crate, then perhaps use something else they associate with feelings of comfort, like their kennel—or, failing that, their favourite toy or treat. Do this enough times and, by the time the road trip rolls around, your dog will be familiar with the car. They may have even developed some positive feelings about it!
Dogs are creatures of habit, so introducing them to something outside of their established routine can be challenging. Sometimes, it can be doubly difficult because you cannot explain to them what is about to happen. The best we can do is ease them into these culture shocks with patience and gradual training. Some dogs may respond to this well, whilst others may need some extra TLC. Remember that positive reinforcement is key and that negative associations of any kind will only increase your dog’s anxieties.
Image: Stylish Hound
Once you overcome the hurdle of long-term travel training, your dog’s anxieties should be a distant memory (if not forgotten). Ideally, you and your dog will make great memories together that will trump the bother and hustle and bustle of behavioural training. Travelling with a dog is a great experience that brings you and your furry bestie closer together (and, from a practical perspective, it saves kennel accommodation costs big-time). We wish you all the best in your training and travels!